With demand for housing fading alongside oil industry activity, the Williston City Commission decided to try and shore up demand for overbuilt hotel rooms and apartment units by banning crew camps within their jurisdiction.
Crew camps are temporary housing built by companies to serve workers who rotate in and out of the region. The idea is that if city leaders force oil field workers into more permanent forms of housing they’ll be more likely to want to put down roots in western North Dakota. Which is a deeply flawed outlook, I think, but beside the point of this post.
To ban the crew camps the Williston city commissioners narrowly passed an ordinance earlier this year establishing a sunset date at which point the camps would have to be closed down. A coalition of crew camp operators, and the businesses they serve, filed state and federal lawsuits over the ordinance arguing, among other things, that it had been improperly passed.
The city won the state lawsuit, but at the federal level Judge Daniel Hovland issued an injunction stopping the enforcement of the ordinance, and in his order found that the city commission got up to some shady things in passing the ordinance.
You see, the City of Williston’s own ordinances require a super-majority vote if the owners of 20 percent of the property impacted by an ordinance lodge a formal protest. The ban on crew camps passed on a 3-2 vote which was not a super-majority. The crew camp operators say enough of them protested to require a super-majority.
Judge Hovland found that not only did the city commission ignore their own attorney, who told them he didn’t have enough information to decide if the 20 percent requirement was in effect or not, but after they voted the commission engaged in some convenient ex post facto math to justify themselves. From Hovland’s order (read it in full below):
This is pretty remarkable, and not at all a positive reflection on the integrity of Williston’s city leaders.
When a judge considers a request for an injunction like this one thing he considers is the likelihood of the success of the lawsuit. Because Hovland sees, at least at this early stage, that the city not only ignored their city attorney and their own ordinances requiring a super-majority vote, and that they tried to jigger the numbers after the fact to justify themselves, he thinks the crew camp operators have a good chance of being successful here.
I think it’s a terribly short sighted and unfair thing for the City of Williston to pick winners and losers by attacking temporary housing on behalf of the developers of more permanent housing. But the law often allows the government to do unfair and short sighted things.
What is not allowed, however, is for the government to ignore the law.
Here’s the full injunction:
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